A Visual Primer: The 2017 Canadian Biennial

Since 2010, the National Gallery of Canada has been contextualizing its permanent collection of contemporary art through Biennial exhibitions that showcase its most recent acquisitions. Work by international artists is a new addition to this year’s Biennial, a move that more accurately reflects the Canadian, Indigenous and international focus taken by all departments collecting contemporary art at the Gallery. In another first, the Biennial is spread across two venues: the main exhibition is at the National Gallery in Ottawa and a satellite presentation, titled Turbulent Landings: The NGC 2017 Canadian Biennial, is on view at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton. The 2017 Canadian Biennial visualizes a current moment in art-making at home and abroad through the work of more than 50 artists. These artists represent countries and heritages from North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, as well as Inuit and First Nations.

Every Canadian Biennial strives to present the boldest and most pertinent examples of art-making today as gleaned through the research, travel, discourses and dialogues of curators working in the Gallery’s departments of Contemporary Art and Indigenous Art and the Canadian Photography Institute (CPI). These works have captured the imagination and critical engagement of the art world in this country and/or internationally, and have been selected for the national collection with their relevance for Canadian audiences in mind. The more than 100 paintings, photographs, sculptures, drawings, prints, videos, and mixed-media installations on view in the 2017 Canadian Biennial reflect the diversely transnational realm of global contemporary art and underline the important role played by Canadian and indigenous artists within it.

What follows is a selection of eight dynamic pieces featured in this year’s exhibition, reflecting the diversity of materials, media, themes and subjects that have been brought together for the most recent – and most globally-encompassing – edition of the Canadian Biennial.

Kent Monkman, Casualties of Modernity, 2015, mixed media installation with HD video, 14:45 minutes, (no fixed height) x 272 x 525 cm. Purchased 2016 through the generous donation of Marnie Schreiber and Karen Schreiber. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Kent Monkman. Photo : Tony Hafkenscheid


Kent Monkman’s work explores themes of colonization, sexuality, loss and resilience – the complexities of historic and contemporary Indigenous experience. His alter-ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, appears throughout his paintings, sculptures, performances and videos as an agent provocateur and trickster who upends received notions of history and Indigenous people.

Miss Chief is the “star” of Monkman’s Casualties of Modernity, a video and installation with which the 2017 Canadian Biennial begins. The work is a satirical look at art through Miss Chief’s eyes, foregrounding the artist’s critique of modern art through the downfall of romanticism, cubism and primitivism.

John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015, 3 channel high-definition video, 48:30 minutes. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery


John Akomfrah’s non-linear, often multi-screen videos counter the canons of commercial cinema. At the same time, his insistence on high-production values and on using the latest in digital filming technologies puts his works at the level of any major blockbuster. Presenting disruptions to official historical narratives, his films are excavations digging deep into the darker layers that underwrite colonialism, migration and nationalism.

Vertigo Sea combines archival material with footage shot in collaboration with the BBC’s Natural History Unit. Devastating images of whaling, slavery, chemical warfare and the testing of the first atomic bomb are interlaced with film clips of sumptuous scenery of vast oceanic vistas, glorious underwater foliage and radiating northern lights. Vertigo Sea is a deeply compelling yet equally disturbing work that speaks to the tragic contradictions underlining humanity’s relationship with the environment and with itself. This major acquisition undergirds many of the themes in Turbulent Landings, on view at the Art Gallery of Alberta.

Wael Shawky, Cabaret Crusades I: The Horror Show File, 2010, high-definition video. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Wael Shawky, courtesy Lisson Gallery


Wael Shawky’s extraordinary film trilogy Cabaret Crusades (2010–15), is an adaptation of Amin Maalouf’s celebrated historical study The Crusades through Arab Eyes (1983). Based on Arabic texts and primary source materials, Maalouf’s book is a compelling account of the centuries-long conflict between Christendom and Islam. In the trilogy, which he filmed over five years, Shawky conveys the conflict in graphic detail through an elaborate combination of marionettes, music and theatrical stage sets. The National Gallery of Canada acquired the trilogy in 2015 upon the completion of the final film, The Secrets of Karbalaa.

Angela Marston, Healing Rattle: Water, 2010, yellow cedar, acrylic paint, abalone inlay, red cedar bark, yellow cedar bark, bear grass, raffia, dye, white pebbles, pearls, and Tzhoulem crystals, 30.5 x 22.5 x 10.6 cm. Gift from the Salish Weave Collection of George and Christiane Smyth, Victoria, 2016. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Angela Marston. Photo: NGC


Angela Marsten learned traditional Coast Salish design elements – ovals, crescents and trigons (three-pointed wedges) – from an early age. A series of four of her rattles included in the 2017 Canadian Biennial uses these designs while exploring the four elements and primary forces of nature. The meaning behind each rattle is rooted in Coast Salish cultural beliefs – living in harmony with the environment and understanding and respecting the associated powers of the number four. In the four winds and the four directions, this number represents symmetry and balance.

Renée Van Halm, Lightness, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 38 x 30.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Renée Van Halm, courtesy of Equinox Gallery, Vancouver. Photo: NGC


The question of “how architectural space governs contemporary experience” has remained a consistent interest for Renée Van Halm over the course of decades. To create her French Curve series, a selection from which is on view in the 2017 Canadian Biennial, the artist turned to images culled from mainstream fashion and decor magazines. From these, she made material collages that also incorporate sheets of origami paper. She then translated these into compositions that are among her smallest to date, combining an intimacy of scale with an intricacy of pattern, formal experimentation and bold combinations of colour.

Mika Rottenberg, NoNoseKnows, 2015, sculptural installation with single channel video projection, installation dimensions variable. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Mika Rottenberg, courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York and Galerie Laurent Godin, Paris. Photo : Courtesy Galerie Laurent Godin, Paris


Mika Rottenberg’s NoNoseKnows (2015) is a video installation that uses pearl harvesting in

China as a vehicle to consider economic bubbles and the assiduous speculation of the global economy in its drive toward emerging markets. For Rottenberg, the pearl is a metaphor for the creative process.

NoNoseKnows was a standout work in Okwui Enwezor’s 2015 Venice Biennale exhibition All the World’s Futures. The “variant” of the installation accompanying the video in Venice featured a pearl shop. The version of the work on view in the 2017 Canadian Biennial features a recreation of the vexingly absurd “bubble room” – filled with bags of deformed pearls and trinkets – that appears in the video itself.

Elaine Ling, Baobab #21, Madagascar, 2010, Ink jet print, 101.7 x 76 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Estate of Elaine Ling, Toronto. Photo: NGC


Throughout her remarkable career, the late Elaine Ling studied the ambiguous spaces that result from humankind’s attempts to impose order and structure on nature. She was particularly drawn to regions marked by sacred sites such as temples, pictographs and cave paintings. Ling’s photographs deftly meld her inner, spiritual journey with the outer, physical activity of travel while referencing the materiality of the photographic medium. The photographs selected for the 2017 Canadian Biennial focus on the baobab tree, a species native to Africa. One of the world’s oldest living plants, the tree is considered sacred by many, and entire villages are entrusted with its care.

Benoit Aquin, Reconstruction of Events by Gilles Fluet, 2014, ink jet print, 101.5 x 164 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Benoit Aquin. Photo: NGC


Benoit Aquin’s Mégantic series was created as a record and response to the unprecedented events that unfolded on July 6th, 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Early that morning, a freight train carrying 5.7 million litres of crude oil exploded in the centre of town, killing forty-seven people. The Montreal artist spent long hours in the small, close-knit community in the aftermath of the disaster, photographing what he saw while developing bonds and friendships with those affected. In 2016, the Gallery acquired a selection of 14 photographs from this body of work, which convey the toll of the disaster on so many whose world shifted so dramatically that day.

The fourth edition of the Canadian Biennial is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from 19 October 2017 to 18 March 2018. Turbulent Landings, the companion exhibition to the 2017 Canadian Biennial, is on view at the Art Gallery of Alberta until 7 January 2018. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue, which includes a complete list of works acquired by the Gallery since 2014. The publication is available from ShopNGC.ca.

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